Syracuse Stage’s ‘Other Desert Cities’ unfolds at a furious pace
Better not sneeze during this Timothy Bond production ― you may miss something important
At last, a play about a family that is not dysfunctional. Syracuse Stage is closing its current season with a rarity among dramas: a play about family members who really do care about each another. Not that the five members of the Wyeth household in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities don’t have their differences. Truth is, they couldn’t be more unlike one another.
At the head of the household is Lyman Wyeth (Ned Schmidtke), a former grade-B actor who still enjoys regaling the family with his dramatically slow “I’ve-been-shot” death scene. Like his idol Ronald Reagan, Lyman entered Hollywood politics, became chairman of the local Republican Party and even rose to the appointment of Ambassador. When we meet him in late middle age he is quite well to do, looking to convince his daughter to allow him to help her out financially.
It would be easy to imagine his wife, Polly (Barbara Broughton) graciously receiving guests at the Ambassador’s mansion. It’s true her children chide her for saying out-of-touch things like “I read it in the Internet” or “we could have a Chink dinner,” but underneath that perfect hairdo and imperturbable smile is one tough cookie. She too is terribly worried about her daughter, and would love to see her buy the house next door where she could keep an eye on her.
It’s hard to fathom how Polly and her sister Silda (Dori Legg) could have grown up in the same Texas Jewish household, because as middle-aged adults, they couldn’t be more opposed. For one thing, Silda is a flaming Liberal who can’t abide the Republican Party and all it stands for. Years earlier, Silda and Polly wrote a popular TV comedy show together. Now the two of them are like a comedy act just by being themselves. Silda parades around in a colorful silk jacket that she claims is an original Pucci. Polly thinks it’s a cheap knock-off, to which Silda responds, “They don’t have fakes at Loehmann’s.” A serious alcoholic just out of rehab, Silda is living with Polly and Lyman until she can get back on her feet.
Show biz runs in the family. Lyman and Polly’s son Trip is now a TV producer, unapologetically churning out shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator in taste. “People need funny,” he says. And he’s happy to give people what they want.
The play really centers on daughter Brooke Wyeth (D’Arcy Dersham). Brooke’s first novel was a great success, but it was followed by six years of silence during which she was hospitalized for depression. On this Christmas day in 2004, Brooke is returning from the East coast to her parents’ affluent Palm Springs home to spend the holiday with her family.
The title of the play, by the way, comes from a highway sign pointing the way to “Palm Springs and other desert cities.” Brooke would have liked to continue on to the latter.
There is an ulterior motive for Brooke’s visit. She has finally written another book, only this time it’s not a novel. It’s a tell-all, name-the-names memoir giving her version of what happened to her older brother, Henry. The book has been sold and is about to be serialized in The New Yorker (Wow – Brooke must be quite a writer). It’s a done deal, but Brooke is somewhat naively hoping for her parents’ imprimatur.
The year in which the play is set is significant. During the Vietnam War days of the ’70s – a war her parents strongly supported, teen-aged Henry joined an extremist anti-war cult that planted a bomb in an Army recruitment center. Someone was killed, and Henry, wracked with guilt, apparently left a suicide note and jumped off a ferry to his death.
Now, Henry is a taboo subject for Polly and Lyman. They’ve moved to the comparative seclusion of Palm Springs to get away from the notoriety. It drives Brooke wild that there is a photo of Barry Goldwater in the living room yet none of her brother, whom she sorely misses. In her memoir, Brooke places the blame for what happened to her brother squarely on the shoulders of her parents.
The play raises questions about freedom of expression vs. the right to privacy. Brooke is deaf to her parents’ plea to delay publication of the tell-all memoir. Pushed to the wall, Lyman makes some unexpected disclosures that give Brooke an entirely new perspective on how far her parents will go to “protect” their children.
Director Timothy Bond and his talented cast keep Baitz’s lines buzzing along at what sometimes seems like a furious pace, affording the audience precious little time to absorb a whole lot of information. If you so much as sneezed you may have missed learning that Lyman was an ambassador.
The final revelation (which I won’t disclose) brings about a visible change in the family dynamics. Barbara Broughton and Ned Schmidtke muster real strength of character when the time comes to administer tough love by telling their daughter the true story about Henry. Actress D’Arcy Dersham undergoes the greatest transformation. By the final Epilogue, when Brooke reads from the book she subsequently wrote in place of the earlier memoir, Miss Dersham has changed from a nervous, haggard girl (popping pills to keep her inner demons at rest) to a mature woman, at peace with her past at last.
For its original production at Lincoln Center in 2011, Other Desert Cities was blessed with a cast made in heaven. Stockard Channing, one of the foremost actors on the New York stage, is said to have given the performance of her life in this role as Polly. The rest of the cast (Judith Light, Stacy Keach) was on that high a plane as well. The solid cast of the current Syracuse Stage production may not have given Baitz’s lines quite as brilliant a sparkle, but they certainly succeeded in giving this family drama a warm glow.
What: Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Timothy Bond
Who: Syracuse Stage (co-production with Portland Center Stage)
Where: Archbold Theater, Syracuse Stage Complex 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Friday, April 10, 2015 (opening night)
Time of performance: About two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Remaining performances: Plays through Apr. 26
Tickets: $30-$54, various discounts available: Call (315) 443-3275 or SyracuseStage.org
Family guide: Profanity, adult themes, occasional smoking